Voting in the land of conformity

The art of political debate still has good conditions in Denmark.

In two days, Denmark will go to the polls and, most likely, elect a new government. With the myriad of small parties, the exact constellation is very much unknown, but it seems quite clear that the current centre-right coalition will be replaced by a centre-left coalition. Whether this means any real change is a different matter, for Denmark is a country of conformity, grand coalitions, and economic and political stability.

Even though we have far-right extremists and other loonies running for parliament, and some might even enter, the main image of the past month’s debate is one of consensus, even joviality. This is heartening, as other countries descend into political anarchy.

Not to say that the parties cannot disagree, even vehemently so. The art of political debate has strong roots here, giving almost a festival mood as hopeful candidates try to make their sound bites stand out in the frenzy.

Framing and owning the story

The art of political debate has many facets. One of them is loaded questions. Framing the questions gives you the advantage, which is why you will almost never hear candidates say yes or no.

An example of a loaded question is, “How much more will you spend on daycare?” This plays to the highest bidder, and nearly everyone will try their best to spend the most of (our) money. More interesting questions to me would be, e.g., “What should politicians not interfere in?” or “How should Denmark improve in 10 years, and how will we know if we were successful?”

To counter the bidding war tactic, a few parties have, with limited success, attempted to pose the question, “Where does the money come from?”, i.e., how do we ensure economic growth? But this drowns as the major parties engage in gift-giving (beware the Greeks).

Another classic in political debates is owning the story. The left-leaning parties have with some success spread the sentiment that only they care about the welfare of people, whereas the right side of the spectrum are greedy and only in it for the power. (Wake-up call: Nobody chooses a career in Danish politics for the money.) On the other side, the right-leaning parties have owned caring for the country and its culture, worrying about the threat of immigration.

In both cases, framing the supposedly dangerous opinions of the opponent is a common tactic. In reality, I am convinced they all want what they believe is best for the country.

Exchanging ideas

The media play a crucial role in ensuring a sound debate. And with owned media (blogs, social media, etc.), there is a potential and a risk that candidates bypass actual dialogue and just shout from their own platform. At least on the extremes.

The good thing is that the public service channels (DR), despite leaning slightly to the left themselves, have taken their role seriously and promoted actual exchanges of ideas and positive dialogue.

On Wednesday, I will still vote for a party on the centre-right axis. But I am encouraged to know that a large majority of voters in Denmark are fairly well-informed and don’t want any extremes. And they will vote in high numbers to ensure the stability and consensus that we have come to take for granted. Happy voting.

Need to know or nice to know?

You don’t need to read this article. It may be nice, though, if I do a good job.

Frustrated business person overloaded with work. Credit: http://www.lyncconf.com

With ever-increasing amounts of information, it’s a dilemma we face many times every day: Do I need to read this email, or can I skip it? Should I forward this to my colleagues? Should I cc my manager on this email?

It’s not a new dilemma, either. Ten years ago, I did research for my MA thesis on internal communication in an Australian branch office of a large global corporation. And an important worry for them was noise. Not physical noise in the office, but the daily clutter of too much information, and a fear of not getting the right information.

I have seen this play out in subsequent jobs, and I have also seen good and bad strategies for getting it right. So here’s a quick low-down:

Three types of information

  1. Need-to-know: This is what you need in order to do your job correctly. Legal requirements, changed market conditions, customer information, etc. You can’t perform without this.
  2. Nice-to-know: This is not technically necessary, but it will help you out. Knowing the long-term corporate strategy will make you perform better, but in the long term. Reading success stories from other departments may boost your engagement and loyalty, but it won’t be measurable on the bottom line.
  3. Noise: This is neither. A poorly communicated case story or irrelevant details from other departments, for instance.

The problem is, of course, that the lines between these three are blurry, and poor decisions in determining the relevance of information often lead to an excess of noise.

How to decide

In the case of LEGO Australia (my MA thesis), there was a growing comprehension of the issue, which is a first step. An email training programme had helped people think about the receiver’s perspective when deciding whether to send an email or not.

While it may reduce noise, deciding on behalf of others is also risky. You can never adequately determine the needs of the other person, but your past experience with them can help you, and the more you work with people the better your chances of deciding correctly on their behalf.

This gives you essentially two choices: let the manager decide, or let the employee decide.

  1. The manager decides. For this to work, the decision needs to be reliable. But even if it is, the power relation carries a risk of people feeling left out, leading to low engagement. I’ve seen teams where everybody felt the manager was withholding information. Whether it was true or not, it was not good for morale and collaboration.
  2. The employee decides. On the face of it, an opt-in approach empowers the employee to make his own decisions, boosting morale and capabilities. But it greatly enhances the risk of noise, or of important information being left out. Actively training people in this task can help, but it may not be enough.

A mixed approach

Not surprisingly, it doesn’t have to be either-or. The point is to use different channels for different types of information.

When I was Chief Editor in Maersk Line, I managed the global mass-communication channel to employees. This was a great tool for nice-to-know stories. People could opt in and read what they wanted; my job was to present the stories in an appetizing, simple, and correct way, and make sure it was in fact nice-to-know and not noise.

But it was not great for need-to-know information. First of all, it was pull, not push, so people had to actively seek it out. But secondly, nobody was expected to read everything – it they did, it would become noise from sheer scale. For need-to-know we relied instead on push channels: email, team and townhall meetings, manager cascades, etc.

So if you want just one takeaway from this, here’s a simple rule of channels:

  • For need-to-know, use push
  • For nice-to-know, use pull
  • For noise, don’t.

The Management Blind Spot

Wake-up call: Your team members probably know less than you think they do.

horse-drawn-carriage-1157187_1280.jpg

Ten years ago, I wrote my MA thesis on internal communication at the office of LEGO Australia. I made theoretical as well as real-life discoveries, and my recommendations to the management were well received.

One key finding especially has followed me ever since: what I then dubbed the management blind spot.

It’s not rocket science, it’s social science. And even if it sounds like common sense, I’ve found that the issue is quite pervasive.

The Downside of a Strong Leadership

At the time, LEGO Australia had a very strong leadership team with highly effective weekly meetings for sharing key insights across the board. Every member of the leadership had a great sense of where the business was going.

This made it so much more striking that the feeling did not reflect upon lower levels. One employee told me: “There’s no way we can interact with one another. I assume that the leaders get together and then they share.”

But confronted with a lack of cross-company interaction, a member of the leadership told me: “I don’t understand that, because I work with every part of the company.”

Team leads play a crucial role in sharing information with their teams. But since they are embedded in both the leadership team and in their own teams, they become blind to the perspective of their own teams, and sometimes wrongly assume that their employees have the same knowledge as themselves.

Oblivious or Machiavellian

I’ve seen this situation play out again and again, where especially senior leaders are oblivious to the lack of knowledge at lower levels – knowledge that they themselves are gate-keepers of.

(In one case I have even suspected a manager of actively preventing a free flow of knowledge, for whatever reason.)

Assuming a well-functioning hierarchy, the situation is difficult to avoid. Obviously, the more senior you are the more you should know across the businesses, and conversely less of the details.

But as a manger you should never forget that often your team only knows what you tell them.

Was Blind, But Now I See

What should managers do about it? Most importantly, they should acknowledge their own blind spot, and work actively to mitigate the pitfalls.

My recommendations to LEGO were:

  • Identify key relationships and interactions between teams and engage these people in dialogue.
  • Set up a “huddle exchange”, where employees on a rotational basis join the team meetings of teams outside their own, to learn more about the business.
  • Increase informal interaction (social events, lunch, etc.) to make people more comfortable with each other across teams.

Today I would add that in a less hierarchical, more matrix-like organisation, the issue would be less prevailing, or take a different shape.

Finally, I should add that too much knowledge can be time-consuming, of course not everyone needs to know everything. Need-to-know is a separate topic I will explore later. The point here is awareness: you should know what you know and don’t know. And as a manager especially, you should know what your teams know and don’t know.

This post also appears on www.deja-vu.net.

If Content is King, Platform is Galactic Emperor

As Facebook and others amass power, open standards and free flow of content play second fiddle.

Do you remember RSS? Ten-fifteen years ago, the web was all about open standards. Yes, we’d had the browser wars as an early sign of big players showing muscle, but essentially the Internet was about content. ICANN and W3C set the rules, and we followed, because that was our ticket to ride on the World Wide Web.

With the rise of Web 2.0 in the mid-00’s, new services allowed us to easily publish, share, and aggregate. Blogging was the medium of choice, and the glue holding everything together was RSS.

The big power-shift

This made sense in a world where content owners were still in power: legacy media outlets were happy to embrace RSS, since a universal syndication protocol made it easy for readers to access their content. And for those of us with blogs, it was the way to get our messages out there, alongside the New York Times, or whoever people had decided to follow.

Today’s media landscape is different, however. The days are long gone when I would check Google Reader constantly, second only to email. Social media, and Facebook in particular, have become the content hub of choice, and this is where we get our daily (or hourly) feed of what’s new.

All hail the profit

But another thing happened. Ads.

As Facebook and Google grew, the had to develop business models that made them profitable. And in order to display ads effectively, they have to keep users in their own universe as long as possible.

This may be the real reason Google Reader was discontinued. It is certainly why original content posted on Facebook or LinkedIn is featured more prominently than links to stuff hosted elsewhere.

It is also the ultimate thinking behind Facebook’s recent decision to discontinue support for third-party tools to share posts automatically to Facebook Profiles.

Big is Bigger

They do this because they can. In 2018, the platform owners are in power, and anyone producing content operates at their mercy.

You see the same thing playing out with Netflix or Booking.com; distributors who have grown so big that they now set the rules.

For anyone who had illusions that the Internet would make the world a more free, open, and democratic place, this is punch in the gut. The tides may turn again, but for now we’ll have to play along.

This means posting your content across platforms, creating separate versions for each. And you’ll do this manually, for even though there used to be open standards that could help your content flow, the giants have effectively killed that dream.

When English takes on new meanings abroad

Foreigners beware: What you think of as an English term may be something made up entirely by your fellow foreigners.

Languages develop; always have, and always will. New terms and words develop; words and terms are borrowed from one language into another. My high school Latin teacher often derided English for being “impure”, and he does have a point: there are remarkably many borrowed words in the world’s lingua franca.

That has cultural and historical reasons, of course, as does the fact that German ceased in dominance in the 20th century, as English rose to conquer the world. The borrowing goes mostly the other way now, and English terms fill our lives like never before. You could argue that crappy English is now the world’s most spoken language.

An interesting side effect is how foreign languages make up their own terms in English. That’s right – importing words is not enough, they even have the audacity to alter it, and often don’t even notice it themselves. This means that in Denmark we speak words in English to each other which no native speaker would have heard before.

You have to be bilingual, and somewhat of a geek, to notice these things. Well, here I am. I can only speak for Denmark, but I would imagine the phenomenon exists elsewhere too.

I’ll give you a few examples:

Soft-ice. You know, the creamy ice cream featured in a Sundae? In American English, it’s known as soft serve, but each country has its own term, apparently, with Germanic Northern Europe tending towards a variety of soft ice.

Body. This word entered my vocabulary with fatherhood. Known in English as a onesie or a romper, it’s what you put on your baby, right after the diaper. It took me a while to discern that the Danish term body probably derives from body stocking; a term which applies only to adult lingerie, however. Oh, and we pronounce it “buddy”.

Ghettoblaster. Not strictly a foreign invention, however what is known elsewhere as a boombox the Danes refer to only as a ghettoblaster (in one word). According to urbandictionary.com, ghetto blaster was a pejorative nickname, “reflecting the belief that they are popular in poor inner-city neighborhoods (ghettos), especially those populated by black Americans.”

Stationcar. A type of car, known in English speaking countries mostly as station wagon or estate. It’s not that station wagon is an unknown term, but for some reason that was not enough. You can see the logic of calling it a station car, and most people would be able to guess what you are referring to. But that doesn’t make it correct.

Feel free to add your favorite examples.